One thing that emerged loud and clear from two of the recent neighborhood town hall meetings is this: Dallas residents want a first-class zoo, and they're willing to pay for it.
Dick Geiger, for one, is sick of the Dallas Zoo's reputation as the ugly stepsister to the slick, kid-friendly Fort Worth Zoo. It didn't help when the Fort Worth Zoo posted a billboard in Oak Cliff a couple years ago—literally within blocks of the Dallas Zoo. But Geiger, a Dallas lawyer and board member of the Dallas Zoological Society, visited town hall meetings to drum up support for the zoo in the city's upcoming bond package. And if he gets his way, the Dallas Zoo will be transformed into a bona fide major attraction in the next five or six years.
Yes, we've heard this before. But the Dallas Zoological Society, which markets the zoo and raises support for it, is asking for a $40 million makeover. That's a long way from the zoo's troubles in the lean days of the early 1990s, when the city was considering shutting it down.
Geiger spoke up at town hall meetings for council members Ed Oakley, Elba Garcia and Linda Koop, and when city staff asked for a show of hands at the Oakley-Garcia meeting, virtually every hand went up in support of substantial funding for the zoo in the bond package, which is expected to go before voters in November. At the Koop meeting, Geiger says he got another "ringing endorsement."
Geiger told residents about some desperate needs at the zoo, including new enclosures for the elephants and giraffes, which are confined to cramped 1950s-era pens (The Dallas Morning News detailed the elephants' dilemma in a front-page story yesterday). The lions, he said, "are in a pitiful Depression-era enclosure built by the WPA."
And then there's the warthogs. Poor warthogs.
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I decided to check out the plight of the warthogs for myself and ventured to their enclosure a couple weeks ago, when a biting winter wind scared away all but a handful of visitors. (The zoo calls these "weather days.") I'm told zoo critters get lonely, and maybe that's why we managed to coax both of the African warthogs from the back of their North Zoo pen with the summons of "Hey, Mr. Warthog!" And, yes, the pen is very small and bare, and warthogs are big.
Warthog facts: They have long legs. They can run up to 35 mph. But trust me, they can't do any running in this tiny pen. Only the males have warts, which aren't really warts. And the females nurse each others' young: They're called "allosuckers."
Hey, I'd vote to spend money on warthogs. But if the Dallas Zoo gets $40 million in bond money--it'll be either $20 million or $40 million on the bond ballot, and of course the zoo would prefer the latter--$11 million is earmarked for spacious, modern pens for big mammals like the warthogs, elephants and giraffes. The zoo would also build a nature trail through the Wilds of Africa exhibit, which is only accessible by a seasonal monorail train, as well as renovate the dank, musty bird and reptile building. That's just a few of the proposed improvements. "We're dreamers," Geiger told me. "Everybody loves the zoo. It has the largest attendance of any attraction run by the city other than the State Fair."
Now it's time to make a choice: OK zoo or great zoo. Geiger, of course, thinks it's time to spend. "The city has been protecting its credit rating at the expense of infrastructure," he said. --Julie Lyons